The Rise of the Machines. It was the subtitle of one of the Terminator movies, but it’s a fair assessment of what we are facing with UAVs. If we apply the developmental model of forming, storming, norming and then performing, we are barely into the first stage of the process as the technology is identified, regulations are brought into place and a new order rises.
I prefer the term UAV, as in unmanned or unpiloted aerial vehicle as opposed to drone, which is not exactly a UAV. These are more aptly radio-controlled aircraft, which have been around for decades, largely flown by hobbyists and out of sight of the general public. While the model airplane clubs still exist, UAVs have taken off, so to speak and eclipsed the hobby market.
In a process of evolution, UAVs branch off from the original hobbyists when people realized that they are a tool that has the potential to be put to work in more ways than one person can possibly conceive. Flying a radio-controlled model airplane takes a lot skill and I’m told that a radio-controlled helicopter is in a league of its own. The turning point came in the evolution of technology in the last four decades or so. The technology of communications became smaller and infinitely more powerful. Suddenly it seemed that everything was changing at once.
Aerial photography dated back to the first days of powered flight, but cameras were heavy, awkward and had a steep learning curve. The development of digital cameras coupled with sophisticated communications technology gave people ideas. And it’s not just about taking photographs. The challenge now is to capture information. It could be photographs or streaming video. It could be infrared or it could be LiDAR. Now, it’s about capturing data, real information, in a format that is usable – and then it’s a matter of how quickly that raw data can be transformed into something that an end user wants and needs.
The UAV is not a toy, and shouldn’t be seen as a toy; it’s an aircraft, a small aircraft, but an aircraft in every sense of the word. The approach to flying a UAV should be no different than flying any other aircraft. For your UAV to be capable of undertaking the most elementary of missions, it must be airworthy and the operator must be capable of operating the UAV to its limits. You can treat the UAV as a toy and simply fly it around and that can be fun, but that’s only half the picture. The other half of the puzzle, the half that makes your UAV a tool, is the hardware that it can carry. This could be as simple as a basic digital camera or range up to a full suite of sensors.
Every business needs information to compete. One of the biggest challenges in just about every business is getting the right information at the right time. Information is like popcorn: when it’s hot out of the popper it’s great, but if you’ve ever found yourself stuck with yesterday’s leftovers you know what it tastes like. It seems reasonable to assume that giving people high-quality data in a timely fashion leads to better decision making. This sounds great, but what does it mean and how do we get to where it is we’re headed? The short answer is that I don’t really know. This is a potential game changer in many ways and the sky really is the limit, because we don’t yet know what the limitations will be. It’s really not that long ago that the Wright brothers showed the world that powered flight was possible and even more recently, how Igor Sikorski demonstrated there was a different way to fly.
Many of us grew up with black and white TV and that black telephone in the hallway. We’ve come a long way from there and how many of us saw any of it coming? Cell phones, who can live without one now? We call them phones, but the phone part is more than likely the least used feature. That’s where we are today with UAVs, right at the beginning and while we don’t know exactly where we are headed, we have to be ready for the ride. There was a story recently about how a UAV played a critical role in freeing a humpback whale trapped in anchor ropes at a fish farm near Klemtu, on B.C.’s north coast. Members of the Kitasoo First Nation used a UAV to help fisheries officers and others free the whale in an exercise that took six hours. Too dangerous to get close to the whale, the UAV allowed the rescuers to get a good look at the ropes in which the whale was entangled and come up with a plan. Five years ago that wouldn’t have been possible, but today it’s as real as life itself.
Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.
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